Warrant Officer Erika
Warrant Officer Erika is one of the very few female firearms' instructors in the French Army. And she didn't get there by chance. “You have to go for it, you have to dare,” she stresses, “and, as a woman, you have to be prepared to always prove more things, be prepared to be looked at by everybody and judged much more than a man is.”
Erika has an easy laugh which she uses often but which doesn't hide her determination. She clearly speaks her mind even if “I've learnt to my cost that because I'm quite impulsive I haven't always weighed my words well and that when one answers back it doesn't always go down well.”
But she insists that girls in the army rank and file must not only be quite sporty but know how to talk back. To illustrate “what we have to put up with every day,” she recounts how once, just after she'd trained, a male colleague told her outright: “You really annoy me because you have the same rank and the same job as I do but you're a girl.” Those types of comments have stopped since she's been an instructor!
Her personal life has paid the price of her determination. “I used to be married to another soldier but I put my career first. The result was that after five years we divorced. Then I remained single for a long time but now I'm in a civil partnership with another soldier,” she smiles.
She recounts that she's “known since I was 15 that I wanted to join the military; initially it was the Air Force because my Dad was in the Air Force.” Her parents nevertheless insisted that she first get a university degree so she decided to study Italian. “Italian?” I ask to make sure I've heard properly. “Why not?” she replies with her quick laugh, adding “I'd already done Italian as a third language at school and at 17/18 years old one really doesn't know what one wants to do so I thought perhaps I'd become an Italian teacher.”
But by the time she'd completed her degree she'd decided that language teaching really wasn't for her and that she'd rather drive battle tanks. So she pushed the door into the nearest army recruiting office. However, standing 1m80 tall she was told right away that she was too tall to be a tank driver. “So what else can I do that will get me close to tanks?” she asked. After passing a series of intellectual and physical tests Erika was directed towards the artillery. She'd also specified that, despite her university degree, she wanted to be a non-commissioned officer rather than an officer “because the careers seemed more interesting,” she explains.
In September 2001 she started at the Saint Maixent school for non-commissioned officers which is in the small town of the same name between Bordeaux and Nantes in western France. “As a non-commissioned officer you are recruited for a specialism,” Erika tells me. So this means that if you've been recruited for the artillery regiments you can't suddenly decide you'd rather join a cavalry one instead. At the beginning of the 8-month course there were about 60 women in her class of 350. By the time it had finished 15 had dropped out. “They'd discovered either that the army really wasn't for them, or that it was too hard,” she says, because “the girls did exactly the same thing as the boys except for sports given that physiologically we can't perform the same as men. No woman has yet run 100m under 10 seconds, for example. So, whereas the boys had to run 3,200m in 12 minutes, the girls had to run 2,900m in that time,” she explains, adding that “this is something that the boys understand perfectly well.”
At the end of 8 months she graduated with the rank of Sergeant. This was followed by four months at the artillery school in the 8th artillery regiment at Commercy (north-east France) famous for its battles at Austerlitz, Sebastopol and Verdun amongst others. The regiment was dissolved on 25th June, 2012. So between 2103 and 2017 she returned to Saint Maixent where she did general instructing “but without daring to ask to do the combat firearms' training course which is what I really wanted to do.” So she was very pleasantly surprised that her superiors encouraged her to undertake this five week course “where you learn to use a whole range of firearms, and you also learn how to train other people. You become the instructor of instructors,” she says.
Becoming an instructor does not mean that she stays in France. “I've been deployed quite a lot in Africa in order to train African troops.” But she explains that there are some countries where she will not go, “notably those where women do not enjoy the same consideration as they do here,” she remarks.
In France she instructs soldiers in the use of the new Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle which is the standard issue weapon for all French military to replace the almost 40 year-old FAMAS.